A Monk, a Rabbi, and the 'Meaning of This Hour': War and Nonviolence in Abraham Joshua Heschel and Thomas Merton*

By Magid, Shaul | Cross Currents, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

A Monk, a Rabbi, and the 'Meaning of This Hour': War and Nonviolence in Abraham Joshua Heschel and Thomas Merton*


Magid, Shaul, Cross Currents


    "Do you know, Fontanes, what astonishes me most in the world? The
    inability of force to create anything. In the long run the sword is
    always beaten by the spirit."
    Napoleon Bonaparte

    "That which distinguishes us from all the animals is our capacity to
    be nonviolent. And we fulfill our mission only to the extent that we
    are nonviolent and no more."
    M.K. Gandi, "Nonviolence: The Greatest Force"

    "Power can guarantee the interests of some, but it can never
    foster the good of all. Power always protects the good of some at
    the expense of all the others."
    Thomas Merton, "Blessed are the Meek"

    "And I also want to say that this is the very first time I have felt
    that God is in the White House."
    Gary Welby
    American Republican

    "We are on the right side, and God is with us, and anyone who has
    God on their side never loses."
    Muhmmad Al-Mehimmad
    Iraqi insurgent

    "Tragic is the role of religion in contemporary society."
    Abraham Joshua Heschel, "Religion in Modern Society"

    "The names of the heroes,
    I was taught to memorize.
    They had guns in their hands,
    And God on their side ... For you don't count the dead, with God on
    our side."
    Bob Dylan "God on Our Side"

I

The present global conflict that implicates Judaism, Christianity, and Islam has presented serious challenges to those who remain dedicated to nonviolence (whether as a religious or secular value) and also work inside one of the above three religious traditions. The voices of nonviolence that have almost always accompanied American military action, from the first World War to Vietnam, have largely been stifled by the enormity of 9-11, (1) an event that, for the first time, put America in a position of having to defend itself against a calculated attack on its mainland. (2) In this essay I explore some of the ways in which this war has been constructed in "religious" terms (3) shifting the dynamic of the Cold War era where the God-fearing "(Judeo) Christian" west positioned itself against the God-less communist Soviet/Sino threat. (4) Many committed to non-violence are examining sources in their religious traditions or searching for spokespeople from those traditions to translate previous theories of nonviolence to the present situation. Among those spokespeople, in Christianity and Judaism, are Thomas Merton and Abraham Joshua Heschel, traditionalist theologians who contributed to the anti-Vietnam war movement in the 1960's. (5) I explore here why Merton and Heschel are simultaneously obvious and problematic choices and why their religious rhetoric may, in fact, be counter-productive to the task at hand. Yet, if read against themselves I suggest they can still be of some limited use in waging a religious critique of religion and speak to the more fundamental issue of the on-going battle between religion and the secular in the public sphere

The present conflict also points beyond the realm of the political and exhibits a more global turn away from the secular toward a renewed sense of religious urgency and piety that has become manifest in the use of violence. (6) This turn has been aptly coined by the title of a recent book The Desecularization of the World. In the introductory essay to that collection of essays, Peter Berger argues that the present turn to religion is not primarily a turn away from the secular or secularism per se but more about the failure of "experiments with secularized religion." (7) Liberal religion in Judaism and Christianity grew out of the Enlightenment and has dominated the west for more than two centuries, arguably serving as a foundation for western democracy and capitalism. (8) According to Berger, the return to a more orthodox or evangelical approach to religion of late is a sign that these enlightened religious experiments have failed to convince those who are believers that such reformed religious ideals are viable and, perhaps more to the point, inspiring. …

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